Hell and Back Again (2011)

And you thought ‘Call of Duty’ messed with your head.

In this unvarnished documentary set on the Afghan front line, U.S. Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris is wounded by Taliban machine-gun fire, then returns to his North Carolina home to grapple with the stress of civilian life.

After last year’s ‘Restrepo’ it seems like the Iraqi War has been the big subject for documentaries as of late, but don’t let that comparison fool you. This is still a great documentary in it’s own right but just not as good as that one, but then again, what else is?

Filmed and directed by Danfung Dennis, the film almost doesn’t seem real but sadly, is. The film constantly goes back-and-forth to show us Harris in the present life with his wife and struggling with trauma from the war, but then goes back to the crazy stuff he had to go through on the battlegrounds in the war. It’s almost like a odd mixture of ‘The Hurt Locker’ and an episode ‘True Life’, but it’s not as strange as it may sound. The way Dennis adds the war shots into the present-day, basically drowning out all of Harris’ other thoughts he may or may not be having which puts in this almost dream-like state that Harris himself is going through. It’s one of the very few documentaries that I have seen that really gets into the mind of its subject and it not only shows us the brutality of war in the battle-field but after as well, which isn’t something new or original to show or say but it’s done to great effect.

What’s so amazing about this flick is that the war sequences that Dennis catches are not only tense the whole way through but beautiful in a way that you keep telling yourself it’s all staged, until you finally open your eyes and realize that these guys could actually die at any moment. There’s one scene that sticks out in my mind where all of these soldiers are hiding from these bombs and the sun is going down in a very slow but hazy way, which is all beautiful until we realize that somebody has just been killed. Even though we do get to actually see that dead body it’s not done in a snuffy way by any means because it’s a real death that almost seems like it’s happening in a Terrence Malick flick. I know that may sound a little crazy but even I started to lose my grasp of what was real and what wasn’t.

I also liked the fact that Dennis doesn’t really try to go for any up-standing political message here. Instead, he just sort of shows us this experience, in the way it happened and it’s aftermath, and just lets the pieces fall from there. It’s nothing ground-breaking or innovative but it’s simple and intelligent film-making like that that gets people really appreciating a good documentary on something that could happen to just about any person in the world who goes off to the war. I hope I never have to experience any of this and I hope nobody else I know does either.

The main reason why this film is so interesting as it is, is mainly because of it’s subject, Sgt. Nathan Harris himself. The guy is genuinely a caring and kind dude that cares for his wife more than anything else in the whole wide world but he also shows a lot here that may make you think otherwise. He is constantly waving a gun around, has it in his hand, and always has it tucked underneath his mattress when he’s going beddy-bye. This guy obviously seems very messed up but it’s not in the way that it’s hard to watch, it’s more in the sympathetic way and that we want him to get better and realize that there is life beyond the war. The film also never exactly tells us whats happened to him or how he’s even doing. This just leaves it up to us to wonder and it’s not only his case that we have to worry about, it’s basically every single person coming back from the war as well.

Consensus: Although Hell and Back Again doesn’t really offer us anything new with its subject, it still gives us a real, harrowing, and sad glimpse into the life of a soldier who just can’t get past the fact that he may never be able to go back to the war again but somehow we find ways to keep on cheering him on hoping that he just gets better.



  1. Nice review Dan! I’m tempted to check this one out since it is an Oscar nominee, but I get the feeling that I’ve seen it before. Unfortunately, a lot of these guys don’t end up getting better, or only do so after years of therapy. Sounds like this one does a good job of telling the story though!

  2. Hadn’t heard about this one, since I normally don’t watch a ton of documentaries, but it sounds interesting. I think some of the best documentaries operate without a particular political statement or message. They show you someone’s experience from the outsider’s perspective and allow you to judge for yourself.

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